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The Hungry Heart

In "Aphrodite," Latin American novelist Isabel Allende treats recipes as magic spells of eroticism.

April 22, 1998|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I repent of my diets, the delicious dishes rejected out of vanity, as much as I lament the opportunities for making love that I let go by because of pressing tasks or puritanical virtue.

--Isabel Allende

****

Young women often go to Isabel Allende for advice. But the question they most often ask the 55-year-old author has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with sex. How, they want to know, do you seduce a man?

Her answer: "The greatest enhancement to eroticism, as effective as the most knowing caresses, is the story, told between freshly ironed sheets, that leads to love." As she points out, the stories Scheherazade told over 1,001 nights not only saved her life, but also seduced a sultan.

After that, Allende says, there are recipes, there are spells and magic, and there is an arsenal of aphrodisiacs: strawberries, chocolate, caviar and wild mushrooms.

She writes of these things in her newest book, "Aphrodite" (HarperCollins, $26), which explores the connection between food and love. It's not quite a cookbook, though there are nearly 150 recipes, and it's not really a sex manual, though the language can get steamy. It is, in fact, as the subtitle indicates, "a memoir of the senses"--from the Chilean fisherman who thrust a sea urchin's tongue into Allende's mouth when she was 8, to the smell of violets from her Aunt Teresa's pastilles, to the first time her current husband cooked for her.

There is even a recipe called Soup for an Orgy, of which Allende is ruefully fond. Sitting in her Sausalito home, a Victorian building which has, in its time, served as both the Bay Area's oldest brothel and a chocolate-chip cookie factory, one asks the obvious question. Has she ever been to an orgy?

"No!" she admits. "Isn't it disgusting! Is it because I'm too old? Have you?" she wants to know.

Allende is the author of six books, with more than 10 million copies printed in 27 languages. "Aphrodite" is her second consecutive book of nonfiction, the happier sequel of sorts to the book she published after the death of her daughter.

Allende's 27-year-old daughter, Paula, was discovered to have a rare genetic enzyme deficiency in 1991; she went into a coma and died one year later. Allende began a journal for Paula when she went into the coma. It, combined with more than 190 letters the author wrote to her mother in Venezuela, became the book "Paula."

"After her death," says Allende, "I could not write for three years." Six months after Paula's death, her husband Willie's daughter died after a drug overdose. "We were so depressed, the world had lost its color and a universal grayness had spread inexorably over every surface."

"Writing 'Aphrodite,' " she says, "pulled us out of that depression. I remembered that I was a journalist by training. First, I went to the library. Not much on aphrodisiacs there. Then, I went to the San Francisco sex shops. I would sit in those vibrating chairs reading translations of Chinese erotica from the 11th century." (She defines eroticism as "using a feather; pornography is using the whole hen.")

Then followed a year of cooking and eating and dinners with friends. Allende wrote the recipes with her mother, Panchita, with whom, Allende has said, she has had "the most important love affair of my life."

Allende tested the recipes on friends. "Of course, you have to tell them they are eating aphrodisiacs, or they will not work," she admits.

"We would prepare the food in creative ways, asparagus spears with tomatoes at the base, peach halves with berries perched on top. We would tell stories at the table about ex-lovers. Many friends described pulling over to the side of the road after leaving our house!"

Sitting back in her chair, she says, "I have been labeled a sensualist. I can live with that."

Certainly her novels--among them, "The House of the Spirits," "Eva Luna" and "The Infinite Plan"--have never shied away from the sensual. Although she has always resented comparisons and pigeonholes in both the criticism and praise for her books, Allende has invented her own brand of magical realism. In it are woven the threads of her childhood. Food and sex are the warp and weft.

She was born in Lima, Peru, in 1942 to a Chilean diplomat and a fabulous cook. Her father, remembered by Allende as a man in a white linen suit, ran away when Allende was 3, after a sex scandal that might shock even the politicians of today. It seems that he kept an apartment in Lima with a two-way mirror, and he often lent the space to friends for clandestine affairs. Dinner guests could watch the couple of the evening--a big hit in Lima society until a politician saw his son through the mirror, in a corset and garter belt, frolicking with another man. (Years later, at 26, Allende was called to a morgue in Santiago to identify the unrecognizable body of a man she later learned was her father.)

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